Petaluma Passes on Just Cause Evictions

Thursday, February 15, 2018
Hannah Beausang
Argus-Courier (Petaluma)

After a series of impassioned calls from landlords and renters representing two sides of a debate over tenant protections, Petaluma’s city council Monday opted not to pursue additional protections, instead investigating other measures to combat a housing crisis made worse by last year’s fires.

Housing advocates urged the city council to instate a provision for “just cause” evictions, which would preclude landlords from kicking a tenant out or refusing to renew a lease unless it’s for a reason allowed under provisions set by the city. Property owners and managers argued that such legislation would strip landlords of their power to evict troublesome tenants and lead to a reduction of rentals on the market.

“I do this every day - I work with landlords and tenants and there’s a perception that landlords are unjustly asking tenants to leave,” said Carolyn Gavriloff, an property manager and owner at Petaluma’s Westgate Real Estate. “My experience is that’s the last choice that a landlord wants. They want to work with their tenants — my landlords are single owners, they’re not big investors. They’re you and me and they’re part of this community … If we have these kinds of restrictions on these folks they’re going to push these into the for-sale market and they’re not going to even want to explore the idea of making these homes a rental.”

Though specific data about evictions was not provided, activists said the current rules leave much to be desired, causing some tenants to live in fear or keep deteriorating conditions in their rentals from landlords to avoid getting the boot.

Zahrya Garcia, a member of Indivisible Petaluma said her family is being priced out of Petaluma. She said advocates will continue to press for tenants’ rights, but declined to elaborate. The city has been clear that rent control is not an option.

“We’re not able to afford it here due to rent increases so how are we supposed to make progress in Petaluma if we can’t afford it here and there’s no sense of security when there’s no protection in place?” she said. “Just cause eviction gives tenants a due process. I believe a diverse community is a thriving community and at the end of the day, there are two kinds of laws — just and unjust. I’m asking for you to do the right thing.”

Just cause eviction was one of a medley of options up for discussion at the council’s workshop, its first public hearing on housing solutions after the October wildfires that wiped out thousands of homes in surrounding communities.

City Councilwoman Kathy Miller, who has represented landlords and tenants in her legal practice, said the state’s current tenant protections are some of the “best in the country.”

“We don’t want to have unintended consequences with respect to this,” she said. “We don’t want to make it harder for people who are young, people who maybe have a blemish on their credit, to get into housing. If you’re making it so difficult for a landlord to evict someone you’re going to have that consequence.”

The council will seek to bolster the affordable housing in the city, which is required by regional targets. Between 2015 and 2023, the city is supposed to build 745 units, including 423 very low to moderate-income units. A total of 334 units were constructed between 2015 and 2017, 10 of which were built for moderate incomes, according to a city staff report.

Projections show 2,061 units will come online by 2023, 75 of which will be affordable. The city is also partnering with two nonprofits to provide land for as many as 83 affordable units for seniors, veterans and below-market rate residents.

The 2012 loss of state redevelopment funds, which kept portions of property tax generated in the city to use for development, dealt a $3 million annual loss to the city and hampered its ability to support affordable housing developments, City Manager John Brown said.

Currently, developers of major projects are required to either build affordable units into their projects or pay a fee into a city fund.

On March 5, the city council will consider upping those fees, and requiring developers of rental complexes to include affordable units, now allowable under recently-enacted legislation.

It would cost $5.64 million for a developer to build 15 units of affordable housing in a project with 100 homes that are 2,000 square feet each. In the same scenario, the in-lieu fee, which would be $9,022 per unit, would cost the developer $900,000, a more frequently chosen option.

“We have more than met the number of housing units that we need to build here and in fact, we’ve surpassed that — what we haven’t done is build affordable housing,” Councilwoman Teresa Barrett said. “I think that’s a critical issue and that’s probably our bad and we have to take responsibility for that but where we do that is by looking at in-lieu fees and looking at requiring inclusionary affordable housing. The in-lieu fees are not a stick, they’re a carrot — they’re a get out of jail free card.”

Council members also emphasized the need for expediency in approving projects, and sought more information about parking requirements for accessory dwelling units, or granny units, built in the existing footprint of neighborhoods. Thirteen such units were approved last year, and three are currently in the process, according to city data.

Other council members sought details about tiny houses and additional protections for renters.

Meanwhile, Brown is working to craft an ordinance that temporarily relaxes parking requirements to provide refuge for displaced fire victims.

The Planning Commission will this month take up a discussion about amending zoning codes to allow for the construction of housing in areas where it’s currently prohibited, opening the door for as many as 236 units, Brown said.

Brown will also investigate a zoning code amendment that would allow housing in commercial districts and business parks. As online shopping booms, more space could become available that would house employees and increase walkability, he said.

“These are good starters,” Brown said.

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